Exhibition: Shipwrecked- Tang treasures and Monsoon Winds
February 17, 2011–July 31, 2011
ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.
A mass of green-glazed storage jars found at the stern of the ship. Photo by M. Flecker.
In 1998, fishermen diving for sea cucumbers off the coast of Belitung, a small island in the Java Sea, discovered a mysterious mound rising above the flat seabed. It was found to consist of Chinese ceramics, twelve centuries old, the cargo of an ancient shipwreck. When the ship was recognized as an Arab dhow, scholars realized that this was the first physical proof of a maritime trade route between West Asia and China—and that Sinbad the Sailor might really have existed.
Ewers from the wreck are encrusted with coral growths.
The ship was originally loaded with about 70,000 individual Chinese ceramic pieces, from everyday bowls and jars to precious wine cups. Its huge cargo also included jars of spices, lead ingots, and a few spectacular objects in silver and gold.
Personal items from the ship—glass from West Asia, lacquer from China, amber and spices from Southeast Asia.
The Ship and Its Crew
From the way the Belitung ship was built we know it came from a Persian or Arabian port. But some of the objects found on board tell of an international crew of merchants, passengers, and seamen who undertook the long and dangerous voyage to China.
Bronze coins from the Tang
period were found on the ship.
Trade and Travel by Land and Sea
For centuries, merchants and pilgrims had journeyed between east and west overland on the famous Silk Road. But by the ninth century this route had become dangerous and many travelers, like the sailors of the Belitung ship, took instead to the sea.
A bowl from Abbasid Iraq (left) and a Chinese dish found on the wreck (right) share a color scheme and foliage motifs.
Ninth-century Asia was dominated by the Tang Empire in the east and the Abbasid Empire in the west. The expanding sea trade between them aided the rise of Srivijaya, a maritime power that controlled the narrow sea lanes now dominated by modern Singapore.